PIK Professor discusses controversial new dietary guidelines

Some of the country’s leading epidemiologists, including Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Karen Glanz, have alleged that the latest federal dietary guidelines have been tainted by the political and financial interests of food industry giants: interests that conflict with the public good. Glanz, the George A. Weiss University Professor of Epidemiology and Nursing and founding director of both the Center for Health Behavior Research and the UPenn Prevention Research Center, recently sat down with Dan Loney of Wharton Business Radio to discuss the issue.

“[The 2015 guidelines] are without question the result of a process that combines science, business, lobbying, and special interests,” Glanz said.

One of the food categories vigorously represented by lobbyists in Washington, D.C., is sugar. Although the new guidelines recommend cutting down on sugar, they do not call out the well-documented need for Americans to reduce their consumption of sugary beverages. “Undoubtedly,” Glanz told Loney, “that reflects some industry influence.”

This influence comes from the sugar industry’s $20 billion annual impact on the national economy: a significant sum, but one that pales in comparison to the $44 billion annual impact of the beef industry. Lobbyists for the latter have the political clout to match—and when they learned about the guidelines’ draft recommendation to cut back on red and processed meats, they used their influence to have it removed, Glanz said.

“The beef industry appears to have mounted a highly orchestrated campaign, with their congressional allies leaning on the secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to dilute the language,” Glanz said. “As a result, the key recommendations [for protein sources] lump together a variety of both plant-based and animal-based products without calling out any of those that are problematic.”

Glanz said the guidelines should have mentioned meat’s disproportionately high demand on the environment—and so did the committee of experts tasked with advising U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials on what recommendations to publish. However, this was removed from a subsequent draft.

The potential for the guidelines to improve the health of millions of Americans and save billions of dollars in national health care costs is, in Glanz’s estimation, curtailed not only by the omission of key dietary recommendations, but also by the way these omissions leave the remaining recommendations conspicuously vague.

“For instance,” she said, “one of the guidelines recommends that Americans ‘limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake.’ That’s a lot to swallow in one sentence.” Plus, Glanz said, there is the fact that “sodium intake doesn’t actually confer calories.”

The guidelines’ recommendations are also harder to capture in the digestible sound bytes that made previous dietary guidelines so user-friendly. As a result, Glanz noted these recommendations may be much harder for people to implement when planning school lunches, military rations, health promotion and disease prevention programs, and well-intentioned food industry initiatives, as well as the choices of the health-conscious consumers to whom they cater.

Although the guidelines’ wording may confuse laypeople, Glanz said its meaning couldn’t be clearer to those who work in nutrition, epidemiology, and related fields.

“The guidelines are so vague,” she said, “that you can just read between them to see what’s not being said and why it’s not being said.”

The good news is that times may be changing. In the wake of

these and other allegations of undue industry influence, there is talk that the U.S. Congress is requesting a review of the process used to formulate and establish the guidelines. Glanz is optimistic that an objective investigation into the process will root out food industry bias by the guidelines’ next update in 2020. In the meantime, though, where should Americans turn for impartial advice on healthy eating?

Glanz’s answer is for consumers to educate themselves.

“One thing you can do today that you couldn’t do 10 years ago is read everything that’s out there in the world of the internet, blogosphere, and social media.”

In other words, astute reading about the guidelines may prove more beneficial than reading the guidelines themselves—at least for now.